Sunday, May 22, 2011

Alleys of Bloomingdale

Between the warmer weather and a recent unit on urbanism in class, I’ve been getting out and about in DC more of late. There’s a neighborhood called Bloomingdale not too far from where I live. 1st Street, which runs north-south smack through the middle of the area has, for my money, the prettiest stretch of row houses in DC.

In mountain climbing, the word gendarme, from the French for policeman, is used to describe a pinnacle of rock atop a ridge. The term could apply to these rooftops.

Apparently the kind of feathery border around the edge of the transom in the photo below is typical of Richardson Romanesque, an architectural style that was popular around the end of the nineteenth century (name for architect Henry Richardson, whose most famous design is Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston). Harry Wardman, a developer who built thousands of row houses around that time in DC, was very taken by the style.

Bloomingdale's east edge is North Capitol Street, a thoroughfare for commuters driving into the city from Maryland and the dividing line between the northeast and northwest quadrants. Bloomingdale is a good deal further east than Shaw and Columbia Heights and thus gentrification, while well underway, is not quite so far along. Here and there, a house with boards over its doorway and windows interrupts the gingerbread rows of 1st Street. A pair of corner stores also remain alive on the street, indicating that a substantial segment of the older black population in the area remains. Indeed, after I took a picture of a particularly handsome house (not the one featured below) and inadvertently included its owner, an old African-American lady, she volunteered that she had been living on the same spot for 48 years and had no intention of selling.

Bloomingdale’s situation is somewhat different from that of Columbia Heights and Shaw, which may also explain the slower redevelopment. It is, for DC, distant from a metro stop, and it lacks a vibrant shopping corridor. What appears to have once been the main commercial strip for the neighborhood, along North Capitol, is now the province of cheap take-out and dollar stores. However, the intersection of 1st and Rhode Island has become the locus of upscale commercial development, with a café and restaurant opening up recently. A little further south is Big Bear Café, one of the city’s most popular coffeeshops, which seems to have particular cachet with the urban hipster crowd. I’ve been in on three or four occasions, and every time it has been packed to the gills with a young, well-heeled crowd. My impression is that Big Bear is both a gateway to Bloomingdale for outsiders and an anchor for new inhabitants, what geographers might call the central node of a functional region. (Note the bear mural in the upper left hand corner.)

I was curious about the backs of some of the row houses on 1st Street, so I made a foray into the alleys on both sides of the streets. Sometimes the city, like the fronts of these row houses, can seem a bit reserved and formal, but the rear of buildings are generally host to a glorious mélange of squalor and creativity. As James Borchert relates in Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, and Religion in the City, 1850-1970, DC alleys have long housed inhabitants, but thanks to shifts in mobility and the efforts of progressive reformers, they transformed into garages and recreational backyards during the middle of the twentieth century.

But perhaps the pendulum is beginning to swing back. Along the alley to the west of 1st Street, locals have refurbished old carriage houses, turning them into permanent dwellings. The surrounding blocks, like many in DC, form a square, creating the possibility of public space in the interior. In most cases, the interior simply gets divided up into parking, but here, the buildings are lovingly tended to. They are small, but their owners lavish them with an intensity of decoration that correlates inversely with their size (note the solar panels on the roofs). Apparently deliveries are such an issue along this alley that the city gave it an official name this year: Bloomingdale Court.

The next block up revealed what appeared to have been an old stable. The doors were locked, however, and a pair of old cars (one, an ancient VW Westphalia) parked along its walls are marked to be towed. The unmistakable scent of urine was in the air, and a dog barked from somewhere within the building, so someone seems to be making use of the shelter.

The next stretch of alley is host to great contrasts in use.

On the other side of 1st Street, I noticed a remarkable flow of people entering a particular stretch of alleyway. They led me to Crispus Attucks Court, a park that occupies an entire block’s worth of land. Saturday in the park was essentially a large flea market, with probably 50-75 people flitting around checking out each other’s wares. A band was playing, and I bought a hamburger from some guys who were working away at a grill. The only way to access this scene was through an alley.

The park is the product of two decades of perseverance. The block was once occupied by an industrial building, but after the city foreclosed on it in the 1998, the neighbors formed a community development corporation and convinced the city to allow them turn it into a tax-exempt park in exchange for guaranteeing public access. Needless to say, given its isolation, the park has an intensely local flavor.

Finally, farther up the alley, I came across this mural. It has caught my eye before while biking through the neighborhood. I spied a fellow sitting nearby on his porch and asked him about it, but he did not know about its origins.

This satellite photo shows both Crispus Attucks Court and the some of the alley interiors on the west side of 1st Street. The neighborhood certainly is dense, but the landscape is infused with all the more energy for its many inhabitants.